Category Archives: Chimney Sweep

Removal Orders and Child-Stealing Chimney Sweeps: How Newspapers Demolished a Brick Wall – Part 2

In a blog post last month I mentioned that newspapers have offered up some promising articles which may relate to my 5x great grandfather, chimney sweep Stephen Burnett.[1] This all follows on from a newspaper report of a removal order challenge in 1830 which revealed his name and the fact that he plied his trade in the early 1770s in the Stockton-on-Tees area of County Durham.  Details of this removal order leading to my discovery of his identity are in Part 1, posted in July 2015.

Covering the period 1776-1780, these latest newspaper extracts all offer further research clues for Stephen Burnett which I will follow up once I can arrange a visit to Durham Record Office.

The initial two articles are in the “General Hue and Cry” section of the “Newcastle Courant” in August 1776.[2]  A reward of one guinea is offered for the apprehension of Margaret Brown and Stephen Burnett. She is described as a 22-23 year old, middle-sized, good-looking woman with a scar on her forehead apparently caused by a burn or scald. She frequently travelled the country in the company of a chimney sweep named Stephen Burnett. The notice states Stephen rescued Margaret from the Constable of Stockton-on-Tees. At the time of her escape she was wearing a flowered cotton gown, a black cotton coat, a black beaver hat and a striped petticoat. Margaret is accused of imposing on the unwary by telling fortunes. The name, trade and operational area of her co-accused correspond with that of my 5x great grandfather Stephen Burnett and perhaps provide another indication of character.

The next mention of Stephen is in two editions of the “Newcastle Chronicle” in March 1778. The 21 March 1778 edition has a cryptic paragraph which states:

“Last week one Burnett, a strolling chimney-sweeper, was detected at Stockton with a boy about 12 years old, who had been stolen from his parents at Newcastle some time ago. What a pity it is that peace officers do not exert their authority in examining and bringing to justice all such delinquents”

The following week the newspaper followed up the story.[3] They learned the original article was aimed at Stephen Burnett, a chimney sweep from Bishopwearmouth, near Sunderland. He also rented, and occasionally resided at, a house in Stockton.

Taking offence at the allegations, the slur on his character and the “opprobrious epitaph of delinquent” Stephen also placed an advert in the same paper. He strongly refuted this slanderous paragraph designed to prejudice his character. He stated that he could produce testimonials that he and his boys had the honour of being employed be some of the greatest personages in the North East. He offered a reward of one guinea to anyone who discovered those responsible for writing and sending the libellous article. This was no small sum of money, equivalent to the buying power of six days craftsmen wages in the building trade.[4]

During this period the issue of the plight of children employed as sweeps was starting to gain traction. The advert and reward demonstrate the strength of Stephen’s feelings about the allegations. He went on the offensive to publicly deny them in an attempt to clear any associated stain on his name and reputation which might impact on his business and possibly his ability to recruit climbing boys in future.

One slight concern to me is the statement contained within the advert that no other person named Burnett employed as a chimney sweep had been in Stockton for upwards of six years past. My 5x great grandfather was there as a chimney sweep at the start of the 1770s with his illegitimate son Robert being born on the road to Darlington at a place called Long Newton in around 1771. But the similarities in name which is by no means common, the location and occupation all seem to point to there being a family connection even if it is not the same man. And at the end of the day the date question-mark is only marginal, the dates are not set in stone and are open to interpretation. I do believe this, in all probability, to be my ancestor.

The final snippet is from the “Newcastle Courant” of 25 March 1780 with an advert posted by Stephen Burnett, Sunderland chimney sweep, seeking the whereabouts of two boys he had hired as chimney sweepers. The lads had deserted from their servitude on Sunday 12 March 1780. The first, Peter Evens, was aged around 15 years old and had been hired for a year; the younger of the two absconders, William Wilson, was Stephen’s bound servant (ie apprentice).  Aged around 12, he measured 4ft tall. William’s height is indicative that small, under-nourished children were ideally suited to climbing the narrow chimney flues.[5]  Stephen once again offered a one guinea reward and all reasonable expenses for the runaways’ apprehension, and also offered a warning of prosecution to anyone else who employed the lads.

An eighteenth century drawing of some chimney sweeps. They were seen as one of the earliest cases of occupational cancer, as observed in 1770 by Percival Pott. Source: National Cancer Institute from Wikimedia Commons:

An eighteenth century drawing of some chimney sweeps. They were seen as one of the earliest cases of occupational cancer, as observed in 1770 by Percival Pott. Source: National Cancer Institute from Wikimedia Commons:

I must admit to a certain amount of discomfort that my 5x great grandfather was a master sweep and was also implicated in stealing children for those ends. Parish authorities apprenticed poor children to chimney sweeps as climbing boys; impoverished parents sold their children to master sweeps even into the nineteenth century. But there are also tales of chimney sweeps stealing children.  One of the most well-known surrounds the son, or in some versions nephew, of Elizabeth Montagu.[6]  He was kidnapped, feared dead, only to return to the home of Elizabeth some years later in the employ of a sweep engaged to clean the chimneys. Thereafter, until her death in 1800, she hosted a breakfast annually on 1 May for young chimney sweeps.

Another philanthropist with a concern for chimney sweeps was London merchant Jonas Hanway. From the 1760s onwards he was an early campaigner in the efforts to improve the working lot of sweeps’ apprentices. As a result of his crusade the 1788 Chimney Sweep Act was passed specifying a minimum age of eight for apprentice sweeps. This, however, was not enforced with children, boys as well as girls, as young as four continuing to be engaged in the business.

The cruelty of masters to their climbing boys was notorious. Physical punishment was widespread. Tales of small children being forced to climb chimneys by sticking pins into their feet or lighting straw behind them were commonplace. The children led a brutal existence, working in filthy, dark, frightening, dangerous conditions by day, with no guarantee of washing facilities after, and sleeping on sacks of soot by night.

In 1817 a House of Commons Report on boy chimney sweeps looking at their conditions between 1788 and 1817 found that:

“It is in evidence that they are stolen from their parents, and inveigled out of workhouses; that in order to conquer the natural repugnance of the infants to ascend the narrow and dangerous chimneys, to clean which their labour is required, blows are used; that  pins are forced into their feet by the boy that follows them up the chimney, in order to compel them to ascend it; and that lighted straw has been applied for that purpose; that the children are subject to sores and bruises, and wounds and burns on their thighs, knees and elbows”;


“…. a sweep might be shut up in a flue for six hours and expected to carry bags of soot weighing up to 30lbs. Many suffered ‘deformity of the spine, legs and arms’ or contracted testicular cancer”[7]

So the thought that an ancestor of mine was involved in this business is the most disquieting thing I have found in my family history research to date.  As a result of this, the words of William Blake’s poem, written around the time Stephen was operating, have taken on greater meaning.

“When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep.
So your chimneys I sweep and in soot I sleep.”[8]


[1] These were discovered via FindMyPast and the British Newspaper Archive. As the OCR for FindMyPast newspapers is not the most accurate, I did the Stephen Burnett search on the British Newspaper Archive site too. Although I am not a subscriber, you can identify the paper and page number and then go back to FindMyPast armed with the newspaper details to check it out.
[2] 17 and 24 August 1776
[3] “Newcastle Chronicle” 28 March 1778
[4] Using The National Archives Currency Converter, 1780/2005 buying power comparison
[5] A check on FindMyPast and TNA IR1 series  of Apprentice Duty Registers 1709-1811 reveals no mention of Stephen Burnett. The Duty was a levy on apprentice premiums, but this levy was exempt for masters taking on charity and Poor Law apprentices.
[6] The veracity of the tale is open to question
[7] Report from the Committee of the honourable the House of Commons on the Employment of Boys in Sweeping of Chimneys – 1817
[8] “The Chimney-Sweeper” – William Blake, “Songs of Innocence” 1789


© Jane Roberts and PastToPresentGenealogy, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jane Roberts and PastToPresentGenealogy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Removal Orders and Child-Stealing Chimney Sweeps: How Newspapers Demolished a Brick Wall – Part 1

In my post about Bigamy in Batley I introduced my 4x great grandparents Robert Burnett and Ann Jackson. Due to Robert’s job as a tinner/brazier, the Burnett family moved frequently in the early days of their marriage. They finally settled in Drighlington in the early 1800s, presumably once Robert had earned sufficient money to establish his own business. Their first children were born in the Halifax area (1794 and 1798) and Flockton (1796). But for a while the origins of the couple remained a puzzle to me.

Robert died before the 1841 census[1]. Ann’s entry in that census indicated Yorkshire roots. She died in 1848, so there were no further clues. From death certificates it appears Robert was born in around 1771 and Ann in 1772.  I suspected Ann’s maiden name was Jackson. This theory was based on the fact that two of her sons, John and James, had children named Jackson Burnett and Ann Jackson Burnett. Their wives had no apparent link to this surname.  The only likely marriage I could find between a Robert Burnett and Ann Jackson took place on 7 January 1793 at Kendal, Westmorland[2].

After that I drew a blank. There the mystery lay for quite some time, until FindMyPast began rolling out their British Newspaper collection.  Playing about with names I was trying to find out any information about their son, Stephen Burnett, and his wife’s possible bigamous marriage. A search for him fetched the following extract from the West Riding Easter Sessions as reported in the Leeds Intelligencer of 29 April 1830:

“….She proved that when about 22 years of age, she lived some time in a slate of concubinage a man named Stephen Burnett, who was a chimney sweeper at Stockton….”

By this time Stephen, Robert and Ann’s son, had died. Neither was Durham associated with my family history research. But the name piqued my interest.

The article turned out to be a newspaper report of a case heard in Pontefract in which All Saints Parish, Newcastle upon Tyne was appealing against an order for the removal of a pauper Jane Burnett, widow of John Burnett, and her four children from Drighlington to All Saints. John Burnett, who was one of Robert and Ann’s sons, died in June 1829.

Under the complex Poor Law rules of settlement everyone “belonged” to a parish and this parish and its ratepayers were responsible for supporting them if the need arose. In larger parishes of the north the financial burden was the responsibility of the smaller township unit. This issue of settlement was a complex and contentious one, the number of inter-parish disputes and court cases a testimony to this. Generally your settlement parish was that of your father but this could be superseded by a number of other factors. For example a woman took the settlement parish of her husband on marriage. If illegitimate your settlement was the place you were born, but this changed from 1743/4 when you took the settlement parish of your mother regardless of your birthplace. There were other permutations too including being a parish ratepayer, renting a property in the parish assessed at £10 pa or more, serving an apprenticeship, or being hired to work in the parish for 12 months; but all in all the rules were a veritable minefield.

In the case of Jane Burnett and her children the Officials responsible for the Poor Law in Drighlington township were trying to prove their rightful settlement for this family was Newcastle All Saints. They were seeking to ship them off to an area of the country the family in all probability had never visited, in order to save Drighlington poor rate payers the expense of providing parish relief for them. And All Saints Newcastle similarly did not want the burden of costs falling to their ratepayers, possibly for many years to come as the children were all under ten years of age.

All Saints Church Newcastle upon Tyne - Blue Plaque

All Saints Church Newcastle upon Tyne, Blue Plaque

In the course of the case Mr Maude, acting for Drighlington, called forward Ann Burnett, wife of Robert. She affirmed that her maiden settlement was Newcastle All Saints where members of her family had received frequent parish relief. Ann had also given birth to an illegitimate child in the workhouse there.

So this appeared to be the very thin grounds for the wish to send the family to this Parish: the fact that Newcastle All Saints was the Parish of John’s mother. However from Parish Registers John was born in wedlock so to my mind should, in the absence of other superseding reasons, have taken the settlement of his father Robert.

All Saints Church, Newcastle upon Tyne

All Saints Church, Newcastle upon Tyne

In turn Mr Blackburn, acting for All Saints, called Charlotte Burnett the 82 year-old grandmother of the deceased. The report contains no mention of Charlotte Burnett’s maiden name, unless that too was Burnett, or her origins. She now lived in Carlisle with her daughter, Mrs McGregor.

In her testimony she stated that when she was around 22 years old she had lived for some time in a state of “concubinage” with a man named Stephen Burnett, a Stockton chimney sweep. Going one day with his apprentices to sweep chimneys in Darlington, she went into labour and gave birth to Robert[3], the father of the deceased, at a place called Long Newton.  Darlington is just over 11 miles from Stockton-on-Tees, with Long Newton a shade over four miles into the journey, so a fair trek in circa 1771 for a heavily pregnant woman. And I am baffled as to why she was making the journey in the first place; she could hardly be sweeping chimneys!

It was therefore claimed that, being born illegitimate, Robert’s place of settlement was Long Newton. And because his son John had gained no other settlement elsewhere the decision was made that he too belonged to Long Newton, as did his widow and children. The court therefore decided that Jane and her children should be removed forthwith to that Parish.

There is some doubt about whether the order was ever carried out. If it was, it only lasted for a short period. Jane Burnett remarried on 27 September 1832 at Leeds Parish Church. The Parish Register entry states that she lived in Armley Parish. The 1841 census shows she was living once more in Drighlington with her children by John, new husband Jeremiah Newell and their children.

So even though I have been unable to trace records of the case in West Yorkshire Archives, due to the contentious nature of the operation of the Poor Law in that period and the newspaper report of the ensuing court case I have a wealth of information, including names and locations, which I am in the process of following up.

From initial searches on FreeReg and a visit to Tyne and Wear Archives it appears that John Jackson, mariner, married Elizabeth Hay at All Saints on 20 April 1772. Ann was baptised on 22 August 1773; daughters Amelia and Jane were baptised on 4 November 1787 at the ages of six and two respectively. Various Jacksons feature frequently in the return of clothes given to the poor. Sadly the poor house admission/discharge register does not cover the period for the birth Ann Jackson’s illegitimate child. However the bastardy bonds include an entry on 27 May 1788 for an Ann Jackson. Jas Atkinson, Shoemaker, appears to be the putative father and house carpenters Gilbert Dodds and Wm [Reid?] are named as those charged with paying bonds of indemnity. However further research is needed so another visit to Tyne and Wear Archives beckons.

That is not the end though. Newspaper searches have produced some further articles which potentially relate to my 5x great grandfather Stephen Burnett, father of Robert. I will return to these in Part 2.


[1] GRO Death Certificate date 31 July 1837
[2] “England Marriages, 1538–1973 ,” database, FamilySearch ( : accessed 5 July 2015), Robert Burnett and Ann Jackson, 07 Jan 1793; citing Kendal, Westmoreland, England, reference yrs 1700-1795; FHL microfilm 97,376.
[3] Giving an estimated birth year for Robert of around 1770-1771